After sustaining the blow from a 13-point second-half comeback effort by the No. 21 Georgia Bulldogs the last time No. 11 Kentucky took the floor, the Wildcats' resilience was put to the test in an 80-72 victory February 1 at Memorial Coliseum.
"It was not the prettiest game ever, but we showed some toughness there," said UK head coach Matthew Mitchell.
With the triumph over Georgia behind them, the Wildcats head into the final seven games of the regular season. Thanks to home tilts against No. 17 Mississippi State, No. 14 Texas A&M, and No. 1 South Carolina, coupled with road trips to Vanderbilt, No. 6 Tennessee, Ole Miss, and Arkansas, the stretch may prove to be the most difficult of UK's season.
"We have a tough game ahead of us down in Nashville against Vanderbilt," Mitchell said of Sunday's game. "They are a tough team and always a tough place to go play. So they're hard to score against, and have another really good defensive team and will make it difficult on us."
Four ranked opponents over a seven-game stretch leave little wiggle room for Mitchell & Co. as their final bye week in conference play comes to an end.
"We've had a good week of preparation, and we just need to really work hard here the next couple days and see if we can go down and get a really important victory for our basketball team," said Mitchell.
The last time Kentucky (17-5, 6-3 SEC) was afforded an entire week of preparation during brutal SEC play, it was coming off an 84-79 loss at LSU, wherein Mitchell cited a lack of effort as reason for the defeat. This time around, his approach has been from a different perspective.
"They probably enjoyed it more this week because they didn't get punished at 6 a.m. in the morning with some pretty tough workouts," Mitchell said. "During (the last bye) week, that's what we did because of our lack of effort against LSU. (This bye week) came off of a good effort against Georgia."
With the Commodores on deck, and six other monumental matchups looming on the horizon, Kentucky is left with little time to better itself before season's end.
"You have to look at what you can get accomplished here. It's about 24 days left in the regular season. So, what can you do? Where can you move the needle?" said Mitchell. "We just tried to work on the things that are going to make this team the best it can be. I think that will be a good team."
Kentucky has won its last seven contests with Vanderbilt, including last season's 65-63 win in Lexington. The Commodores (13-10, 4-6 SEC) head into Sunday riding the momentum of a 58-54 comeback victory over Ole Miss.
"Our young players are working so hard," Mitchell said. "They're getting better, and I just want to be the best coach for them that I can, and get the most out of them. We've just spent a lot of time this week working and trying to get better, and hopefully you'll see that Sunday in Nashville."
No. 11 Kentucky will face Vanderbilt Sunday, Feb. 8 at 1:00 p.m. ET on the SEC Network.
Mirroring her team's play, Jennifer O'Neill had an up-and-down-and-up-again afternoon.
She started off "in spectacular fashion," according to her coach, and Kentucky built a big lead, but hit a wall in the middle portion of a Sunday showdown with Georgia. The Lady Bulldogs capitalized and UK's 17-point margin disappeared.
But over the final 97 seconds, O'Neill took over.
"We had to try to regroup and then she ended the game with a big flourish and was really money down the stretch," Matthew Mitchell said. "So it was an interesting game. Started great and ended great and the middle was something not as great."
Exactly when Kentucky needed it, the senior guard stepped up. The Wildcats trailing Georgia 72-70 in a back-and-forth Sunday showdown, O'Neill wasn't about to let her team lose a home game it could have won against a top-25 opponent for the second time in four days.
"I think at the end of the game, in this game today, she was really able to lock in and focus and correct any mistakes she was making," Mitchell said.
After Jelleah Sidney came up with a steal, Matthew Mitchell called timeout. The play he called went awry, so he called timeout again and drew up another for O'Neill, who had 13 points at the time. O'Neill used two screens and took a pass from Bria Goss. Calmly rising, O'Neill drilled a 3 with 1:37 left to give the No. 10 Cats (17-5, 6-3 Southeastern Conference) a 73-72 lead they wouldn't relinquish.
"Once it left my hands I felt pretty good about it," O'Neill said.
"It's good to have really good players sometimes, you know, because she just made a play," Mitchell said.
The shot started a game-ending 10-0 run during which O'Neill scored eight points against No. 21/20 Georgia (17-5, 5-4 SEC). Fittingly, O'Neill grabbed the last defensive rebound and dribbled out the final eight seconds on UK's 80-72 win on UK Hoops' annual Alumni Day.
"I think that 3 helped us gain momentum," O'Neill said. "Everybody started getting excited, everybody started getting up on defense and we started being more aggressive on defense, which allowed us to get turnovers."
UK would get stops on its final four defensive possessions, forcing three turnovers, and O'Neill hit a driving jumper and three free throws to clinch the win. For the game, she had six rebounds and four assists to go with her 21 points.
"She was fantastic overall and we needed every bit of what she gave us today," Mitchell said.
Her team-high point total came in spite of just eight attempts from the field, her lowest total in nearly a month. O'Neill hit six of those shots, 3 of 4 from 3 and 6 of 7 at the free-throw line to score more points than she has since Dec. 12.
For the Cats to be their best, O'Neill needs to be aggressive. However, she's learning to strike a balance between asserting herself and forcing things.
"(Assistant coach Tamika Williams) has been teaching me how to understand how understand quality, not quantity when I'm shooting or when I have a workout," O'Neill said. "... That's really it: just really paying attention to my form and why I'm missing. I don't want to just keep shooting and missing and not understanding why I'm missing to change it."
Whatever she did on Sunday, the Cats could use more of it.
Matthew Mitchell has been a head coach for a decade now.
Losing hasn't gotten any easier for him in that time.
"It's just misery, man," Mitchell said. "I don't know how to describe it other than it's just miserable. I'm no fun to be around."
Mitchell got his most recent reminder of how unpleasant it is to lose on Thursday night. No. 10 Kentucky (16-5, 5-3 Southeastern Conference) dropped a 73-72 heartbreaker to No. 6 Tennessee, missing four potential game winners in the final 16 seconds.
Afterward, Mitchell spent some time sulking, but not too much.
"You can fuss and mull it over and stew and fume at the house like I did last night for three or four hours and then you gotta get up this morning and turn the page, man," Mitchell said. "You gotta get going because this game is in front of us and that one last night is behind us."
The page turned, UK is on to Georgia. The Wildcats better be.
"We're playing a Georgia team that will beat our tail if we don't get ready for them. It's a wonderful thing from that standpoint," Mitchell said. "If you want to hang your head right now, Georgia will be more than happy to take advantage of that."
The No. 21/20 Lady Bulldogs enter Sunday's 1 p.m. matchup with UK at Memorial Coliseum 17-4 (5-3 SEC). The Cats will be Georgia's third straight top 10 foe after the Lady Bulldogs beat Texas A&M on Jan. 22 and lost at Tennessee on Sunday.
Georgia played the final 22:42 of that game without leading scorer Shacobia Barbee. Barbee will miss the remainder of the season after undergoing surgery to repair a broken bone in her lower right leg. The Cats, only weeks removed from losing Janee Thompson to a season-ending injury as well, can relate.
"It just takes away an extremely talented, experienced, tough player that can affect the game defensively, on the rebounding, the scoring," Mitchell said. "She's just a really outstanding player for them. It's just absolutely horrible for that kid. It's horrible for anybody to have a season-ending injury."
Since Georgia had an open date on Thursday, Mitchell isn't sure exactly how Barbee's absence will affect the Lady Bulldogs. What he does know is they'll be ready come Sunday.
"If I needed somebody to figure it out, Coach (Andy) Landers is probably as good as anybody to figure it out," Mitchell said. "So they'll be ready. They'll play real hard. They'll be tough. They will know how to attack us and what our weaknesses are and they'll put stress on that."
Similarly focused on UK's weaknesses are the Cats themselves.
UK played the No. 6 Lady Vols to just a made shot or foul call away from a victory in spite of 19 turnovers and a still-developing group of young post players. As difficult as it might be for Mitchell to remember, that's a reminder of what the Cats are capable of.
"With this team, we don't have any time to waste," Mitchell said. "I really do think we're improving. I really do. I think we're getting better. I think we're headed in the right direction. I think this team has a chance to be really good. That's what we need to stay focused on right now, just fight for improvement every day."
Matthew Mitchell has never been afraid of a little self-reflection.
His latest look in the mirror came after Kentucky lost at LSU 10 days ago.
"Baton Rouge was a big wake-up call for me because as I looked at the film, it was not a team that was playing with a great desire and it was not a team playing with a lot of fire or that was playing particularly sharp," Mitchell said. "That's all on me."
Particularly when it comes to his young group of post players, the season has brought more than its share of frustration for Mitchell. With coaching departed veterans Samarie Walker and DeNesha Stallworth still so fresh in his mind, he couldn't help it.
"What I noticed and what I think it was not helpful was grading them and comparing them to past teams," Mitchell said. "That got us into a spot where I was probably more negative than I needed to be with our post players."
Ahead of a showdown with No. 6 Tennessee (17-3, 7-0 Southeastern Conference), Mitchell has changed his approach accordingly.
"I need to have an atmosphere in practice and around the program where they will fight, play hard and give you everything that they have," Mitchell said. "I just got the post players together last week and talked with them. It's not a matter of whether they can or they can't. It's a matter of whether they will or they won't."
Mitchell is learning to accept mistakes as he teaches, and also to simplify what he asks of freshmen Alexis Jennings, Kyvin Goodin-Rogers and Alyssa Rice.
"That doesn't mean it can't be good," Mitchell said. "That doesn't mean we can't win tomorrow night. We just have to do what we've been working on real well and we have to play extremely hard and we have to outwork Tennessee and we have to play a lot harder than Tennessee."
Though the goal with the Lady Volunteers coming to Memorial on Thursday at 7 p.m. is of course to win, No. 10 Kentucky (16-4, 5-2 SEC) doesn't view the path to victory as any different than it would be for another opponent. UK-Tennessee remains a rivalry with conference race implications, but the Cats have more immediate priorities.
"The worst thing I can do is go in and tell Alexis Jennings, 'We've gotta get in here and beat Tennessee and if we don't beat Tennessee, the world's gonna stop turning,' " Mitchell said. "She's got enough in her brain right now just knowing what she's got to do in ball-screen defense and what she needs to be doing in the press and what she needs to be doing in our offensive sets that I really haven't put a lot of emphasis on the game, not because we don't respect Tennessee or we don't think it's a very big deal."
Facing Tennessee is a big deal for another reason as well.
The Lady Volunteers, led by seniors Cierra Burdick and Isabelle Harrison and juniors Bashaara Graves and Nia Moore, are dominant, physical and experienced in the frontcourt. Tennessee has an average rebounding margin of plus-nine and has shot 158 more free throws than its opponents this season.
"Where Tennessee poses a great challenge is very important," Mitchell said. "If we want to be a really good team at the end of the year, we're going to play teams like Tennessee that are going to go to the offensive glass and are going to be tough and they're going to be physical in the post. So it's a great opportunity for our post players to compete and to see where they stack up right now."
Regardless of the outcome, Thursday won't be the end of the line for the Cats or their developing post players.
"It's an important game. It's an important rivalry," Mitchell said. "I just haven't had a lot of time to work that angle because we've got so many things this team needs to do and improve on. We're trying. We've got 32 days until Senior Day and we're just trying to build every day on some improvement and see what we can become at the end of the season."
Matthew Mitchell didn't even need to get back to the Bluegrass to come up with a plan.
Within a couple hours of Kentucky's loss at LSU on Sunday, he had a clear picture of how to move forward. He wasted no time passing it along to his team.
"Before they left the airport after Baton Rouge, we really talked about what the week was going to look like," Mitchell said.
With an open date on Thursday ahead of a Sunday trip to face Missouri (11-8, 1-5 Southeastern Conference), the No. 14 Wildcats (15-4, 4-2 SEC) took an off day on Monday to regroup. Returning to practice early on Tuesday morning, they were challenged physically in the wake of a disappointing performance.
"We showed them on film where just the energy level and the approach to the game did not indicate how important one of these opportunities," Mitchell said. "You only get 16, and we didn't look like it was a very precious opportunity. We just tried to do some soul searching this week and figure out what we are going to do."
The soul searching is all targeted at addressing one core issue.
"Well, there is no in between with our team; it is truly a feast or famine proposition," Mitchell said. "When the energy is not there, we have no chance to make up for some of the mistakes that we are just going to make right now."
The mistakes, oftentimes, come from UK's talented but young frontcourt. Freshmen Alexis Jennings, Kyvin Goodin-Rogers and Alyssa Rice have all had their moments, but defensive lapses have been inevitable. Searching for an explanation, Mitchell is certain of one thing.
"I'm there with them and it's not physical in my mind," Mitchell said. "They are capable of everything that they need to do and I cannot place my finger on it. My suspicion is or my guess is that they don't trust their ability to play the way I'm asking them to play."
That's not altogether surprising. Playing in UK's fast-paced, high-pressure system isn't easy, especially not for young post players who have never been asked to do what Mitchell is now demanding of them.
"It's just uncomfortable," Mitchell said, "and I don't think any of them want to get beat and that's just the process you have to go through to play here is the understanding that you have to play hard enough and you've gotta accept that people are going to go by you some and your teammates are going to pick you up, taking a charge or forcing the ball out or forcing one more pass, whatever our rotation is able to produce."
Not making things any easier has been Bria Goss' month-long absence and a season-ending injury to Janee Thompson. UK's depth and margin for error have suffered as a result, but the Cats aren't about to make any excuses.
"The situation exists as it exists right now and there is no changing the circumstances," Mitchell said. "The only thing we can change right now is how we are going to deal with these circumstances, what are our actions going to be."
To that end, Mitchell is undertaking a balancing act. On one hand, he has no choice but to accept mistakes. On the other, he has to correct them as they happen.
"It is a fight every day," Mitchell said. "We have a very good group of young players and we just have to coach them up and they have to play hard. We have tried to address who we are going to be and what kind of effort are we going to give on Sunday and that is really what we are focused in on right now. We are going to have to give a really good effort on Sunday to win."
Missouri may have lost six of seven games, but Mitchell has seen a team that could give the Cats fits if they aren't prepared.
"They are a team where their strengths will definitely stretch our defense and we have been working hard this week to make some headway in the area of our defense," Mitchell said. "We will sure get some sort of indication of how we have done this week because they will test us in every way possible."
Makayla Epps and Linnae Harper have always been the future of UK Hoops.
That future has arrived sooner than expected.
A season-ending injury to Janee Thompson on Sunday left the two sophomores with no choice but to step up into featured roles. The tears Epps and Harper cried for their teammate weren't even dry when they realized it.
"We both knew it was on as soon as Janee got took off on that stretcher," Epps said. "We both knew right there mentally that it was on, that we have to step up now. There's no more excuses."
Epps would have to shift from her customary jack-of-all-trades role over to being UK's permanent point guard. Harper would have to go from being a part-time standout to a full-time star for No. 10/11 Kentucky (15-3, 4-1 Southeastern Conference) to sustain its strong start.
One game in - a hard-fought 62-56 win over Florida (9-9, 1-4 SEC) - Epps and Harper are handling themselves just fine.
"I think tonight we both did great things on the offensive end," Epps said. "We still struggle on the defensive end with ball watching, which I'm sure we'll see tomorrow in practice for film, but we just have to step up on both ends because, like I said, it's all for Janee."
The Cats repeated their "play for Janee" mantra all night on Thursday in Memorial Coliseum, from the moment Thompson took the floor on crutches alongside head coach Matthew Mitchell on. The junior received a loud ovation from the crowd of 5,134 and watched from a few feet behind the UK bench.
With Thompson so close, Epps found herself wanting to ask advice of the player she's replacing. She'd have to settle for the occasional knowing look.
"There was times where I would look up and look at her," Epps said. "She would smile at me so I'm like, 'I'm doing all right.' "
All right for Epps meant 20 points, five rebounds, four assists and two turnovers. After an uneven first half, Epps was aggressive throughout the second stanza in scoring 14 points, following advice given by her head coach when he called her back for some final private words in the halftime locker room.
"He always tells me there's not too many people that can guard me," Epps said, "and I think I just really have to start believing that because when I get my feet in the paint that's creating shots for me, that's creating opportunities for my teammates and I just think I have to start believing in myself more."
Epps showed no shortage of self-belief in the final minutes, burying six clutch free throws in as many attempts over the final 2:15 to salt away the win. Still, Mitchell will be demanding more from her as she settles into her new role.
"We wouldn't have won the game without her," Mitchell said. "She just needs reps. I really believe this: I believe she can be one of the best point guards in this league. I think she can be one of the best point guards in the country, but she needs reps."
Harper, on other hand, remains in a familiar role on the wing, but she can no longer afford to show only flashes of her talent. The injury to Thompson, who Harper has known and played with since fifth grade, might have hit her harder than anyone, but Harper still has to step up.
In her 32 minutes against Florida, Harper did just that. She had 14 points and a team-high nine rebounds, as well a career-high six steals.
"She's developed so much," Mitchell said. "Last year she didn't get on the floor because she couldn't defend and now she's out there the whole game and just on a torrid steals pace."
Harper has a team-best 40 steals, including 20 over her last six games. She plans to keep her improvement on defense and offensive emergence going in honor of her friend and teammate.
"Now it's just all about playing for her because I know that she would want the best for us," Harper said. "I think about her all the time, I think about her every day and think she's my motivation to work harder in practice, do the little things, get in the gym extra and I think that's going to be contagious to the rest of the team."
It didn't take long for Matthew Mitchell to find a positive in Janee Thompson's horrific injury against South Carolina.
In fact, it was within a few hours of Thompson going down with a dislocated ankle and fractured fibula that Mitchell found that silver lining.
"The outpouring of support from people literally from all over the country, it was an amazing experience," Mitchell said.
It was an experience, of course, that Mitchell would give most anything to not have gone through, but amount of people who reached out and the way in which they did made it one he won't forget.
"It was very uplifting to see that and just all of the support we received from all of the people who aren't even connected to our program who just saw it on television and sent their thoughts, prayers and support," Mitchell said. "We are a very grateful team and program and we are excited for Janee to start the recovery process and get back to full speed."
Thompson's recovery has already begun. After receiving initial treatment and a diagnosis in South Carolina, she was able to fly back to Lexington with her teammates on Sunday night. On Monday at noon, she underwent successful surgery with an eye on returning next year.
"She will miss the rest of the season, but we are extremely optimistic that by the time the players gather up for summer school in June that she will be fully participating and will not know that she was injured if everything goes like the doctors feel like it will go," Mitchell said. "We are very appreciative of our doctors here. They did a great job, as always."
Thompson has spent the week resting, but will return to class as soon as she is able. Once that happens, she'll assume an important role as a team leader.
"She has developed into an incredible example of sacrificing personal things that might have been holding her back as far as her development and just really buying into the program with honesty, hard work, discipline, being high-character, being a person of great preparation, being a person of high preparation, being a person willing to sacrifice," Mitchell said. "All of the things we try and teach, she has become a great part of and is a great example of that.
"She is a powerful force on our team and will continue to be that and so we are moving in a positive direction in what has been a tough situation."
But as the No. 10/11 Cats (14-3, 3-1 Southeastern Conference) move in that positive direction, they'll have to do it without Thompson on the court. The junior was averaging 10.1 points and a team-leading 3.1 assists as UK's point guard, making her loss a significant one in every way, but not one that can't be overcome.
"The way you deal with it is that you have a very talented group of players," Mitchell said. "We're not the most talented group of players left standing in the country, but we are a talented group. Janee makes us less talented because she's such a great talent and has been performing so well for our team, but it certainly does not mean we cannot go out and be a functioning basketball team and be our very best."
To that end, the Cats have adopted a new slogan in Thompson's honor: "Our B3st." It's a play on the year's theme of "Our Season" and Mitchell wore a shirt bearing the slogan to his pregame press conference on Wednesday. The team will do the same for warmups before Thursday's 7 p.m. ET matchup with Florida in Memorial Coliseum.
"The t-shirts are our one and singular goal for this season and this team," Mitchell said. "We need to see if we can possibly become the very best that this team can be and so we put the number three for the E and 'Our B3ST' is what we will continue to try to be and Janee will be a big part of that. It's just a way to honor her."
The other way the Cats can honor Thompson is by sustaining their strong start to the season even though Mitchell says their margin for error is slimmer now. No longer can they rely on Thompson to pick up the slack in practice or games when someone lacks energy. Instead, everyone must be focused at all times.
"It does need to heighten everyone's sense of awareness of their responsibility to the team," Mitchell said. "It does impact everyone from that standpoint."
Fortunately, Bria Goss is expected to reenter the lineup just as Thompson is leaving it. The senior guard and defensive stopper has missed a month with a broken left thumb, but is slated to play.
"That's a blessing that we can get her back," Mitchell said. "I don't know to what extent she is going to be able to perform. I can't give you a percentage. I know she can perform very well defensively. She is shooting the ball great right now. It's still tender and it's not 100 percent in the hand, but she is cleared to play and she is going to give it a whirl on Thursday night and that will help us tremendously."
Considering the test the Gators (9-8, 1-3 SEC) always present, Goss will be needed. Florida took two of three from UK a season ago, with the Cats winning the third matchup in the SEC Tournament. The Gators are coming off a 66-47 loss at Missouri, but Mitchell says to pay little attention to that game since Florida played without junior guard Carlie Needles.
The Cats, according to Mitchell, have approached practice accordingly.
"We have a huge challenge ahead of us so I have not seen us lacking focus yesterday (Tuesday)," Mitchell said. "I thought yesterday was a good day and a step forward. We need to have a tremendous day today and we need to have a terrific practice tomorrow before tomorrow night's game and we got to come out incredibly focused and energized to beat a very tough Florida team.
"One thing, it doesn't matter what Florida's record has been is now has been they just always seem to be extremely prepared. Coach (Amanda) Butler does a great job and I'm not expecting anything other than a very difficult game and we've got to find a way to be tough enough to win."